When Liberian American artist Flahn Manly set out to host “Renaissance Fire,” a group show held on September 9 at the A-Mill Artist Lofts, he wanted to change the conversation surrounding the art world and challenge its conventions on the value of art and the messages that galleries seek to promote.
The “Renaissance Fire” exhibit was organized as a celebration of lighting the torch to systematic oppression—a celebration of the diversity and creativity of multidisciplinary artists telling unique and compelling stories. The exhibition, as described in the event page, explored “the depths of the human psyche to mixed media pieces that celebrate the overall beauty of Blackness and what they imagine it to be.”
The exhibit was sponsored by Red Bull and provided participants an opportunity to interact with other Black artists who exhibited their work. Manly, along with several other Black visual artists and entrepreneurs, showcased his work on a platform artists of color rarely get to experience.
Although Manly started his professional career as a portrait painter more than 10 years ago, he has always considered himself a fine artist. He utilizes acrylic oil and charcoal for most of his large-scale paintings, which have a hyper-realistic quality and often focus on topics and issues that he holds dear.
“Since I was a kid, I’ve very much been anti-oppression. Anything that’s oppressive, I’m going full force at it,” he said. “If I don’t have the words, I paint the picture, so they can feel something.”
Each of Manly’s paintings tells a story. His work depicts Black people in different postures with an array of expressions. They’re painted on large canvases that cover most of the wall, almost mural-like. His work at the “Renaissance Fire” event was exhibited at the bottom of the A-Mill Artist Loft and reflected stories of Black resistance to oppression through a range of portraits.
Another artist in “Renaissance Fire” was Uzoma Obasi, a Nigerian-American photographer-turned-painter who changed mediums to expand his creative capacity and storytelling in sharing his artistic expression. Although Obasi had exhibited his photos in the past, this particular event was the first time he was able to share his paintings with others.
“As I started painting and creating my style and my method around the messages, I knew that each piece for me served as a reminder to keep moving forward in this period of time,” he said. “I have ambitions, I want to be successful in everything that I do. These are the signs I see when I turn around on that road to success.”
Obasi met Manly through social media and the two stayed in touch throughout the years. Manly had reached out recently to have him participate in the “Renaissance” exhibit of underrepresented artists of color. Obasi found himself relating to the theme and decided to participate in the group show, because, he says, his art was meant for people and not galleries.
“Most of my art is not for art people. For me to do ‘art people things’ and do art style stuff,’ it does not necessarily fit my style. I want my pieces to be on the walls of and in the homes of those who will collect,” he said.
Kayla Gant also exhibited her work at the event and found it an opportunity to challenge the themes Black artists are expected to explore. This year is the first time in her career as an artist that she’s been able to publicly share her work.
“I think since this is like my first year actually showing my work like this, it is making me realize that my work is better than I think,” she said.
Much of Gant’s work depicts Black people in moments of joy and exuberance with smiles on their faces. She pointed to how most visual arts depicting Black lives show them suffering or sad and chose to do the opposite in her work.
“I don’t want people to only see that. I want them to see that there’s a beautiful side to being Black. And there’s not just a negative,” she said.
Part of the difficulty for Black artists to break into the art world is the gatekeepers—from curators and gallery owners who value an artist’s work based on their associations and not the merit of their work.
“There’s all these barriers and credentials,” Manly explained. “Who did you train with? What master? What’s your position? It’s all just a measuring stick and trying to use it to evaluate you. Trying to measure your worth.”
Instead of buying into this system and seeking outside validation, Manly decided that his path would be to seek the support of the communities featured in his art.
“I’m going to give the art to the people that it is made for, that inspired the art. I’m going to give it to them first. They’re going to partake in it,” he said.
Sharon Williams and Destiny Pierce, two singers and friends of Manly who attended the event in a show of support, found that there was a communal energy about the exhibit that was present that day.
“Art is the one thing that has no language. It transcends cultures and boundaries,” Williams said. “This is the perfect place for him to be able to share a piece of himself with people from different walks of life.”
“It also teaches us how to be vulnerable with each other,” Pierce said, “and to be able to put our stuff out there and to be able to accept that type of criticism and how we can take that and make our art better and continue to grow in who we are.”